St Lawrence Prayer Group 12th December 1992
ON THE INCARNATION
The late Ronald Knox said that you could tell whether a person was an Anglican or a Roman Catholic by this very simple test.
Ask them first whether they believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and they will both say "Yes" without hesitation.
But then ask them what the statement "Jesus is the Son of God" means, and you will get two very different sorts of answer.
The Roman Catholic will explain what it means in terms which are entirely consonant with what most Christians have believed throughout the ages: the faith which St Vincent defines as that which has been believed "always, everywhere by everyone". The Catholic faith in other words.
The Anglican on the other hand, said Knox, will show from his answer that he believes something quite different.
If that was the case 50 years ago when Knox first said it, it's probably even more accurate today.
It's not that Anglicans by and large hold a single clearcut belief about the meaning of the Incarnation, a belief which could be placed alongside the belief on the Universal Church as it has defined it in, say the Creed or in the writings of St Augustine, and find as a result that is it is closer or further away from the truth.
What Knox found, and what I suspect you will find today is that from any group of 50 Anglicans chosen at random there will be perhaps two whose belief about the Incarnations is recognisably what the rest of Christendom believes and has always believed (as St Vincent said); and then you will find 48 homespun versions which bear little or no resemblance to it and which will not survive five minutes close inspection without falling to pieces.
Now for a Church and a Nation which has always made so much of Christmastide this is a serious matter. And this set of Advent talks on the Incarnation is a golden opportunity for me and other to try and put the record straight.
Christians, as opposed to homespun-Anglicans have believed from the very earliest times that Jesus was and is God. That is what Scripture says: that is what the Church teaches.
Look at the opening of the Epistle to the Hebrews which is read on Christmas morning.
"At various times in the past under various different ways God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his son, the son that he appointed to inherit everything. He is the radiant light of God's glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe through his
powerful command . . . as far above the angels as the title which he has inherited is higher than their own name".
Nothing could be much plainer than that. No nonsense about Jesus being just "a very good man" "a man for others" or a "great teacher" (though of course he was all of these things as well.
Jesus is God, and at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow. Angels and men who accept his authority confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
You can't have it both ways. Either Jesus is what he claimed to be or else he is no a good man. If he's not God then we have no business getting involved with him. If he is God on the other hand then we have no business in trying to make him out to be something else.
He's no angel, because angels aren't given birth to by women. Nor so far as we know do they eat, drink or die on crosses.
He's no being who is half human half divine, like Iolanthe's son Strephon who, you may remember, could get the upper part of his body through a keyhole whilst his legs were left kicking behind.
No. The Incarnation is a statement that Jesus is true God and true Man. Of course some people don't like that idea any more than they did 2,000 years ago. "He came to his own domain and his won people did not accept him".
Not surprisingly, I suppose. for Jesus, both now and then, by his words and deeds continues to break most of the nostrums by which goodness is recognized. He was by the standards of today quite unashamedly sexist, racist, tokenism, particularist, selective and apolitical. he was also someone who quite unmistakably enjoyed to doing the job he had been sent to do and "learnt obedience by the things which he suffered".
So as a Nineties Man, Jesus does not rate at all well.
But the other side of this coin is that people really believed in him Lifted up on the cross he drew men and women of all kinds to himself.
There was a sort of near-instant recognition. As St John says in the first chapter of his gospel "We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth"
What makes the distinction between those who believe on him and those who don't? It has, I think, something to do with those words "as many as received him".
At one level of course this is a blinding glimpse of the obvious. If you don't receive Jesus, well, then you don't receive Jesus and that's the end of the matter.
but there is an important aspect to the word "receive" which needs to be brought out. Receiving involves being receptive or a willingness to receive. It's not like assenting to a proposition that is true like 2+2=4 which is something which the mind decides the truth about or proves by experiment to be the case.
"receiving Jesus" involves the will as well as the mind. In fact unless the will is actively engaged in the process, the mind itself won't get you very far. That is whey the simple-minded are often the most faithful disciples.
Let us now look at St John's first letter:
"Something which has existed since the beginning of time that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes, that we have watched and touched with our hand, the Word who is life: this is our subject"
Receiving Jesus could be likened to the process of recognition which takes place on two very different levels.
suppose you are walking in the street and you see some famous person, whom you don't know personally. Of course in one sense you "recognise" them because you know who they are. They are the Mayor of Barchester, or the President of Utopia or perhaps some famous star of stage or screen.
That is the sort of recognition that the Anglicans whom Knox was describing give to Jesus when they say "Jesus is the Son of God".
But now think instead of the person you do know and perhaps haven't seen for some time whom you recognise in the street.
Isn't your first instinct to greet them, crossing the street if need be to do so? And doesn't your heart warm up as you start to unpack with them all the past that lies between now and the last time you met? Very different from the recognition which you give to the President of Utopia.
The friend-recognition encapsulates the concept of "receiving" or "accepting" the person we have recognised.
"As many as receive him", said St John, "to them he gave power to become the sons of God" adding for good measure as it were in his Epistle that whilst we are now the Sons of God, it does not yet appear what we shall be; "but we know that we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. Surely everyone who entertains this hope must purify himself, must try to be as pure as Christ"
The Incarnation then has to do with receiving; and receiving has more to do with the will than most Anglicans like to imagine.
It's so much easier after all to say "Jesus is the Son of god" than to make the act of submission to his sovereignty over our lives that Christians from the beginning have always recognized that the statement "Jesus is the Son of God" necessarily entails.
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